Nation Prime

The curse of Kenya’s vice presidency

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Wednesday March 11 2020

Of late, Deputy President William Ruto sounds like an injured tiger. He is angry. Cornered. And willing to fight those determined to eclipse his political goals.

His only solace is that his position as DP is protected by the Constitution, although he seems to have lost his place within President Uhuru Kenyatta’s inner circle.

For the past two years, ever since President Kenyatta managed to tame Opposition leader Raila Odinga’s political anger with a “handshake”, security and a promise to right some historical wrongs through the Building Bridges Initiative, the star of Dr Ruto has been dimming within the government, but still shining among his supporters.

Apart from Jaramogi Odinga, who took on his tormentors head-on from January 1965 to April 1966 -- when he threw in the towel -- no other vice-president has staged a formidable fight to save his place as Dr Ruto has done.

The DP seems to blame his woes on the system – even though he is a member of the National Security Council, whose mandate is to “exercise supervisory control over national security organs”, including the military, the police and the National Intelligence Service.


But his body language, of late, appears to indicate that he may have lost the confidence of such security organs.

That Dr Ruto has not raised those issues within the National Security Council – and has opted to discuss them in public meetings – indicates that he is willing to fight, and score, at public forums.

It is not the first time that a vice or deputy president has found himself in a similar predicament due to succession wars.

Moi’s VP Mwai Kibaki found himself restricted to his native Nyeri District and few politicians would dare invite him to their districts. The fear among Moi’s inner circle was that Mr Kibaki was capable of building a national image and perhaps become a threat to Moi.

But Kibaki faced the humiliation he went through silently – and hardly raised his voice until he found that his position as a politician was under threat during the 1988 queue voting saga.


By failing to take on his tormentors, Kibaki would be regarded as a “coward” by his detractors – although he later on rose to become one of the most successful presidents.

At the moment, and in public, the DP does not seem to take on President Kenyatta, who appears to have abandoned him to sink or swim in 2022.

Again, the DP has been rubbishing the war against corruption, claiming it was targeting particular people, while President Kenyatta sees the graft fight as one of the hallmarks of his rule.

Mr Odinga’s party is now threatening an impeachment motion against Dr Ruto, but the latter remains unbowed. “Since the system cannot elect anybody, they can only kill. But there is GOD in heaven,” he posted on Twitter.


How Kenyatta's inner circle humiliated Jaramogi

Before he fell, Jomo Kenyatta’s Vice-President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga was embroiled in a damaging arms scandal. This was after guns were found in the basement of his Jogoo House office.

Odinga knew about the guns – and as he later claimed – so did Kenyatta and some members of the Cabinet.

It was 1964 and Kenya was preparing to become a republic. According to Odinga, some rumours were started in British papers in mid-1964 that he was preparing to take over the government while Kenyatta was away attending the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference.

As Kenyatta left, he appointed Joseph Murumbi the acting prime minister, even though Odinga was the second senior-most politician in the country. That meant that he believed the rumours that Odinga was the “evil genius”.

It was reported that Odinga had imported arms – guns, rifles, ammunition, medicine and radio sets – from communist countries and that they were stored in the basement of his office.


As Home Affairs minister, Odinga was in charge of the police and prisons and it had been “agreed” between him, Kenyatta and External Affairs minister Joseph Murumbi that the police force should be well equipped before the British left.

“The Prime Minister wanted to be able, if necessary, to equip the police independently of Britain,” Odinga would later write.

Although the arms, according him, came designated as cargo for the Prime Minister, it was agreed that some of the arms should be stored in the basement of Odinga’s ministry building.

“Part of the consignment was in the safekeeping of Kenyatta himself,” he wrote.

But the arms saga was used by anti-Odinga elements within the Kenyatta government, led by Tom Mboya, to damage his reputation as Kenya’s transition to a republic began.

I was not even informed of the proposed removal."

It was Defence Minister Njoroge Mungai who “discovered” the arms and invited the international press to come and witness the cache of weapons that Odinga had imported.

The timing was perfect.

Odinga was away and the raid had been leaked to the media.

“I was not even informed of the proposed removal … I reacted as coolly as possible to the provocations. For the most part, I let them slide,” Odinga would later remark.

But neither Kenyatta nor Murumbi came out to tell the story behind the arms.

“The country was left with the impression that there might possibly be some truth in these reports about my plotting,” Odinga added.


Kenyatta, or rather the inner circle, was increasingly getting suspicious of Odinga after he told a public rally in Kisumu that the government had fallen under imperialist influence and was taking orders from the UK and the US.

It all started shortly before independence, when Kenyatta, as Prime Minister, failed to appoint Odinga – by then one of the leading figures in Kanu – into the Cabinet and he only came to learn about it from Achieng Oneko, who was acting as Kenyatta’s private secretary.

The British had convinced Kenyatta to leave out Odinga’s name because they feared his communist links.

“I was taken aback,” Mr Odinga wrote in his book, Not Yet Uhuru. “But I decided that this was no time to make an issue of my exclusion. I did what I could to ensure that Kenyatta’s final list included men who were genuine representatives of the people’s cause.”

Odinga blamed the British colonial government which, according to him, was trying to “divide the Kanu ranks this time by driving a wedge between Kenyatta and me. I said publicly that I had been a victim of witch-hunting aimed at dividing Kanu and slowing down the pace of Kenya’s independence.”

Slowing down Odinga had become the pastime of various politicians who were sympathetic to western democracies, and as supremacy wars started within the Kenyatta government.

Although Kenyatta had named Odinga his first Vice-President, that did not stop his nemesis’s bid to dethrone him from the number two position.

At that time, from early 1965, focus had turned on the Lumumba Institute, off Thika Road, where Kanu was training its junior officers under the watchful eye of some communist allies. Ironically, although it was later blamed on Odinga, it was Kenyatta who had opened the institute, which he said would train Kanu party cadres, teachers, journalists and civil servants on African Socialism.

The next missile against Odinga came after a suspicious arms cargo destined for Uganda was stopped in Nyanza. Why this cargo was allowed to cross the Tanzanian border at Isebania and get intercepted in Odinga’s backyard was a political gimmick.

In the Cabinet, I was being excluded from decision-making."

Uganda’s Prime Minister Milton Obote was forced to fly to Nairobi to have a word with Kenyatta, hoping to get back the eleven truckloads of Chinese weapons. Kenyatta had been outraged. The rise of a Kitchen Cabinet within the Kenyatta Cabinet made sure that Odinga, even as VP, never got to know some of these things.

“In the Cabinet, I was being excluded from decision-making, and at one and the same time, my membership of the Cabinet was used to silence me and to hold the allegiance of my supporters, not only in Nyanza, but throughout the country,” Odinga wrote of his frustrations.

He realised that some of the decisions had been made outside the Cabinet and their work was only to rubber-stamp them. He said as much: “When we came to Cabinet meetings we were faced with decisions that had been taken outside by a group of ministers acting as a caucus.”

In the mix was William Atwood, the American ambassador to Kenya, who always passed intelligence reports to Kenyatta and Mboya regarding Odinga’s links to Communists. He also encouraged Kenyatta’s inner circle to move against Odinga and is believed to have been behind the closure of the Lumumba Institute.

The February 1965 death of Pio Gama Pinto, a fervent Odinga supporter, served as a warning shot to those opposing the inner circle.


And in order to show Odinga where the power rested, Kanu – mostly Dr Njoroge Mungai, James Gichuru, Mbiyu Koinange and Mboya – made sure that no more students joined the Lumumba Institute and, by January 1966, Parliament was told by assistant minister Gideon Mutiso that the institute would not be allowed to function unless the proposed reorganisation was carried out.

Next to be cut down was Odinga – who had turned to be a renegade within the Cabinet.

An open split had by 1966 occurred within the Cabinet and it was time for Kanu to act. A meeting of all Kanu leaders was convened at Baraza Hall in Nairobi to declare support for Kenyatta. It was followed by a series of meetings in hotels and politicians’ homes. The most notable one was held at Corner Bar in Nairobi by Mboya’s supporters. The February meeting, according to GG Kariuki, who had attended, decided to come up with a plan to galvanise support.

Armed with this declaration of support, the Kenyatta administration decided that Odinga had to be cut to size. If need be, he would be removed from Kanu leadership altogether as he did not abide by party policies. Odinga and his group, on the other hand, had considerable support.

After this meeting, Mboya moved a motion in Parliament expressing confidence in Kenyatta’s leadership and demanded that all radicals express their stand. Odinga, the Leader of Government Business, had not been informed of this motion and he was taken by surprise. He walked out in protest.


Mboya now knew that he had cornered Odinga. He then announced that Kanu would hold a full party delegates' conference on March 12 and 13 in 1966 at the Limuru Conference Centre. Odinga tried to say that this was unconstitutional, but few listened. Kenyatta, who was the chair, called for a vote and those in favour won the day.

It was Home Affairs Minister Daniel arap Moi who proposed Kenyatta as the sole party president. The secretary-general’s slot went to Mboya.

Another proposal put forward was to create eight Kanu vice-presidents to dilute Odinga’s position.

These went to Lawrence Sagini (Nyanza), Jeremiah Nyagah (Eastern), James Gichuru (Central), Ronald Ngala (Coast), Eric Khasakhala (Western), Mohamed Jumbat (North Eastern), Mwai Kibaki (Nairobi) and Daniel arap Moi (Rift Valley).

What followed was a witch-hunt targeting Odinga, with Mboya taking the lead.


David Goldsworthy, Mboya’s biographer, recalled this moment: “Tom Mboya fought the arduous power struggle of 1964-66 with masterful technique and a quite chilling implacability. He fought to win, of course, but more than that, he fought to eliminate his opponents from the contest entirely. He fought by nothing less than zero-sum rules: Winner take all and crush the loser”.

On April 14, 1966, Odinga penned his resignation letter to Kenyatta: “You have not given any consideration to me as your number two in State matters. I have a conscience and this, in fact, does prick me when I earn public money but with no job to do. I consider this a waste of public money and I am worried lest the future generation questions my sincerity when they would learn that I allowed myself to hold a sinecure post in the midst of poverty and misery in our country. With this realisation, I cannot continue to hold this position any longer and I hereby tender my resignation”.

On April 28, 1966, Odinga and 30 MPs resigned from Kanu and joined the Kenya People's Union (KPU).

According to the House Standing Orders, Odinga’s party could be recognised as the Official Opposition. House Speaker Humphrey Slade recognised the party.

But Mboya was not yet done with Odinga. He moved a constitutional amendment motion requiring those who were elected on a Kanu ticket and had resigned to seek re-election.


While this stopped the KPU raid on government benches, the “little General Election” became a popularity contest between Mboya and Odinga.

The little General Election of 1966 affected only 30 Members of Parliament out of 169. Odinga’s KPU only managed to get back nine seats while Kanu won back 21. Seven of the seats were in Nyanza, thus turning Odinga into what Mboya wanted: a tribal leader.

Mboya was not aware that his usefulness as a Trojan Horse in the Kitchen Cabinet would not last with the departure of Odinga.

By eclipsing the Kanu leftwing, Mboya had failed to recognise that the Kanu rightwing was still in place.

The leftwing of Kaggia, Denis Akumu, Kimani Waiyaki, J.D. Kali and Achieng Oneko had been ravaged.

The rightwing led by Koinange and others, which was determined to see that only one of their own succeeded Kenyatta, became bolder.

Ultimately, he paid the price in 1969 – and Odinga was politically vanquished by the end of the year, only to return after the first multiparty elections under Moi.